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Sunday 18 March 2018

Nice try, Tom, but builders do not deserve sympathy

The CIF chief's bid to stop Nama from going after developers' family homes is flabbergasting, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

TOM Parlon is the Captain Smith of Irish public life. Smith was the unfortunate soul in command of the Titanic when it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Parlon, after being ejected from the Dail by the voters at the last election, took over at the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) just as the property bubble popped and developers passed the Black and Tans in the league table of Irish villainy. Bad timing doesn't begin to describe it.

To be fair to Smith, he went down stoically with the ship, as a captain should, whereas we now know that Parlon, a former PD junior minister, is not going anywhere without a fight, but kicking and screaming to the bitter end. It has even emerged that he directly lobbied the Taoiseach behind the scenes to request that the family homes of builders who had bankrupted the country not be seized by Nama.

There's no great surprise in that. The CIF pays Tom Parlon a quarter of a million euro a year to represent the industry. They'd be understandably miffed if his reaction to the wholesale seizure of their property and assets was simply to shrug, admit it's a fair cop, guv, then advise his members to hand back the keys.

But nor should he be astonished if the public reaction is less than sympathetic, especially when Parlon apparently had the cheek to drag the Constitution into his email to Brian Cowen.

Presumably this was the bit of Bunreacht na hEireann that describes the family unit as "a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law", and one that the State is beholden to defend as "the basis of all social order".

To which the only answer is: nice try, Tom.

Unfortunately for developers, there's not actually a clause in the Constitution that declares that having a family is the financial equivalent of a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, which instantly absolves one of all responsibility for one's mistakes.

If there was, all wrongdoers would need to do to ringfence their enviable lifestyles is transfer the bulk of their assets into the names of various trophy wives and children and, hey presto, the element of risk is conveniently removed from entrepreneurial capitalism and transferred entirely to the little people at the bottom.

This would be many things, but a contribution to social order isn't one of them. Which is why the Government rightly turned a deaf ear to Tom Parlon's entreaties.

Whether they'll be able to make good on the intention to get their hands on this property remains to be seen, because the super-rich don't employ armies of accountants and lawyers just because they like their conversation over dinner, but that it's the right thing to do is a no-brainer.

The developers, no doubt, regard all this as schadenfreude -- the crass taking of delight in another person's misfortune -- and there's definitely a lot of it about.

The arrival of the Dublin city sheriff to seize art from the Ailesbury Road home of developer Bernard McNamara in a bid to repay some of his creditors was treated as a hilarious spectacle. It had to be done, but we didn't have to enjoy it quite so much.

In fact, it's hard to escape the conclusion that if TV stations offered the chance to watch live coverage of developers and their families being turfed out into the street as part of a pay-per-view package, it would be the broadcasting hit of the year. But just because a lot of people are taking pleasure in your downfall doesn't mean that the downfall itself isn't thoroughly deserved.

The developers haven't really got to grips with that concept yet. They're still in victim mode -- a way of thinking which isn't helped, incidentally, by those headlines shouting, "Nama goes after the rich." That's a pretty selective interpretation of the totality of what has happened.

Far from going after developers, Nama has dug them out of a hole to the tune of billions. In return, they're now attempting to claw back a small proportion of that bail-out by targeting a few houses. We should all wish to be gone after in such a fashion.

The spouses and children of developers may wind up losing a roof over their heads for something that was not within their control, but no more so than the families of tens of thousands of other, less asset-rich people who have lost jobs and homes and hope as a result of recession.

Gratitude, though, doesn't seem to come easily to some people. Another aspect of Parlon's lobbying, also revealed last week, is the fact that he wanted builders whose assets had been taken over by Nama to have the chance to buy them back at discount prices.

In many ways, this proposal was even more flabbergasting than the request to leave the family homes of builders alone. At least that could be disguised as humane compassion for innocent wives and children, backed up with relevant cliches from the Constitution and sob stories of high-class hardship.

Seriously expecting that people should then have to endure the sight of builders picking up a bundle of detoxified assets from the Nama bargain bin is just rubbing victims' noses in it. If developers have the cash to go around buying property, they should be using it to pay back their debts like every other Irish citizen has to do.

Not only has to, but wants to, actually. That's the big difference. Most ordinary people would be ashamed about getting themselves into such a mess that they effectively put the country into the red for a generation to come to sort it out. Developers seem to regard it as their due. Their attitude is: you want us to get the country back on its feet? Then you'd better pay us handsomely to do it. Reluctantly, we've fallen into line, which is why Nama is advancing developers the working capital to complete projects left hanging when the recession hit the fan. If that's what it takes, then that's what it takes.

But believing in capitalism, imperfect as it may be, as the answer to our problems means accepting that rewards should only come from success, not in advance of it, and the developers are a long way from there yet.

A period of humility is definitely called for. Especially when the Constitution, of which developers are evidently so fond, plainly states that rights also need to be regulated "by the principles of social justice" and in accordance with the "common good".

Or to put it less legalistically: don't push your luck.

Sunday Independent

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